So this girl walks into a bar

Only in this case, it was a BP gas station somewhere outside of Davenport, Iowa at approximately 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. Keep in mind that some hours earlier I was in Chicago, living it up at the apartment of my friend’s aunt who lives on the 60th floor of a beautiful apartment building overlooking the lake. Now I am sitting at a gas pump, looking around and slowly realizing that I may have just driven straight into the twilight zone.

The gas station itself is placed strategically at the tip of this giant open parking lot which at one point in history, evidently served a purpose greater than just providing fuel to incoming travelers. Beyond the gas pumps and building, and across a vast empty parking lot is this old rundown 50s style diner — it’s one of those generic-looking vintage remakes that’s paneled in stainless steel and has a tall sign that must have once lit up to say, “DINER” in bright electric red letters. From the looks of it, this place hasn’t been open in quite awhile. Nor has “Mom’s Restaurant,” the ‘home cooking’ joint nestled to the left of the relic diner and to the far back of the BP. On the opposite side of the gas station and basically surrounding the entire perimeter of this asphalt desert there is nothing but dry corn fields for miles, upon miles, upon miles. The land is paper flat — it’s painfully flat, it’s the kind of flat that makes you feel like you are going to suffocate from boredom or isolation or abandonment or all of those things people like me, who have never lived in the plains or the flatlands, think about when they look at pictures of the midwest. Or, you know, when they are standing at a gas pump, idly pumping gas watching as a standard issue green and yellow John Deere tractor slowly drives past them from right to left, on the frontage road just beyond the edge of the rest area. 

No kidding. You can’t make this stuff up.

So I am standing there, pumping my gas, watching this tractor drive by and thinking to myself, “huh. Iowa.” Said tractor finally passes so I turn around to face the direction of the deserted parking lot in front of the deserted diner and note with some curiosity that there is a man with a giant cowboy hat and wranglers on, standing in the middle of this parking lot next to a giant red truck with a giant red horse trailer attached to the hitch in the same bright Americana Chevy red. Oh, and he is also holding the reins to a giant horse that he is now walking in circles around the parking lot. Dude walking a horse. In the parking lot. Off the highway. I am repeating the earlier thought in my mind about Iowa and making a mental note that this gas station scene is getting odder by the minute.

And then I walk inside. The gas station building itself is dead quiet, I mean there is NO music playing, there are no other customers, it is silent like crickets chirping in distance silent. So I use the restroom (painted neon green, by the way) and then go up to the cashier to pay for the bottle of water I have picked up on the way back from the bathroom. I didn’t even know there was a cashier around (note earlier statement regarding weird silence) and yet, as I walk up, I realize that there are in fact two cashiers sitting behind the register — an older south Asian man and woman who I presume to be husband and wife — who are just sitting there staring blankly straight ahead until I walk up and pay.  The wife then mumbles some sort of “thank you have a good afternoon” in this tired, bored sort of way before she returns to her post of sitting behind the counter and zoning out into space. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Silence. Staring. Blankness. Iowa.

Clearly the only thing left to do was to continue to drive west toward the inevitable border of Nebraska and beyond. In between the perplexing gas station experience and York, Nebraska where I am right now, there was, in fact, a whole lot of driving (over 6 hours), lots of corn fields (miles and miles) and approximately 5 episodes of “This American Life,” the National Public Radio show that I manage to find applicable to all social conversations and that for the last two days has been molding my perceptions of the world outside my car windows into these lovely and amazing anecdotes of underbellied American culture. (To be honest, I am not quite so sure this is a good thing — the thoughts in my head are starting to take on a very Ira Glass-eque tone. I am getting into the habit of pairing dramatic theme music with my inner monologues. I could very well be a spitting vocal image of David Sedaris by the time I get to California, awkward nasal whine included). 

Today’s theme, in keeping with the “This American Life” tradition of picking themes, was something along the lines of juxtaposition, i.e., the silent couple placed in front of the backdrop of corn fields, tractors, and cowboys with horses. Or the desolate, dusty brown streets and buildings of downtown York, Nebraska partnered with the sounds of Mariachi music whizzing by in raised trucks and men speaking Spanish outside the local bar. Even I represent to myself a sense of unexpectedness here — the Massachusetts license plates, my giant purple Nicole Richie sunglasses, just me in general being in a wee bit of town like this and gawking at people like I have been suddenly cut and pasted into a bad Thomas Kincaid replica (although, is there really any other kind of T.Kaid print? Seriously).

It’s just a passing observation from a very small and fast-moving lens, but I like the idea that the heartland of America is perhaps a lot closer to being truly representative of us as an “American” people than most of the public and the media give it due credit for. I like the notion that little towns like this are sorting through a kind of multiple personality disorder in terms of traditional cultures of many backgrounds coexisting, mixing, melding, blending, etc. in a variety of ways. I wondered today as I walked out of that gas station about the lives of that couple and how, when and why it came to be that they ended up living in Iowa. I wondered what they thought of it. I thought the same thing when I eavesdropped on the Latino guys chatting on the sidewalk, and then I pondered similarly, what the white policeman who pulled me over for having a broken headlight thought about the Latino guys, if he thought about them at all. And what does he think of his life here in this small town in the middle of America, if he thinks of these things at all? And then I thought, what do I think of ME in this town in this diner in this STATE?!?!?

“…And then I thought…maybe I’ll eat dinner”   — Mike Birbiglia, Comedian. “This American Life,” episode #361: ‘Fear of Sleep’

Postcards from Elyria, Ohio

Editor’s note:  In the spring of 2009, I had just recently returned from 4 months in Malawi, Africa, where I had been working at a refugee camp as a social worker. I had just broken up with my long-term boyfriend and was back in the states for a six week “vacation” that involved graduating from my master’s program at Boston College and moving everything I owned back to Northern California before returning to Malawi to continue my job near the country’s capital. It was a time in my life of great heartbreak but also enormous opportunity, like I had just been given a great big gift I didn’t even know was needed or even possible. Thanks for revisiting these growing pains and adventures with me. 

So I had this whole panic attack last week about the over-abundance of choices in Boston and how the sheer number of alternatives for food, transportation, consumer products and life in general in the big city, sort of freaked me out and was causing me to tailspin a little. Ok, a LOT.

Well, as I have been reminded of in the last 24 hours, the phenomenon of options or variety is something that may very well be unique to metropolitan America. As I write, I am hanging out somewhere off of Interstate-80 in a little gem called Elyria, OH. This is the first official stop on the cross country road journey from Boston to Rosa (the first un-official check point was NYC yesterday but given that they have fancy beer and Chinatown, I am not sure it counts). The fascinating thing about this place, other than the fact that the Holiday Inn has free wirelessInternet and a functioning treadmill, is that I have actually been here before SEVEN YEARS earlier with Lindsay Buckles when the two of us drove a U-Haul from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco after we both graduated from college. I also have a distinct memory of why we got off at this exit — like yesterday, it was the end of a long day. It was getting dark. The prospect of driving all the way to our intended destination in Toledo looked grim and overwhelming. And thus, Elyria, OH and a meal at Bennigan’s beckoned.

The Bennigan’s is, unfortunately, now closed but everything else in this Interstate jewel of an exit is exactly the same. There are the token three hotels: The Holiday Inn, the Econo Lodge, and the Best Western. Likewise, there are your standard gas stations like Shell, BP and Chevron. And let’s not forget the all-American food choices — everything from McDonald’s and Taco Bell to a bitchin’ Red Lobster and middle America’s favorite, The Cracker Barrel. I haven’t even gotten to the “shopping” scene…WalMart. Oy.
So I think I have to take this moment to clarify and maybe even apologize for my last post — my feelings on being overwhelmed by the big city were indeed, truthful. Being in New York later that week was also pretty overstimulating. But I think those reactions and the sense of panic is applicable only to those remote bubbles of city life — being out in what will become an increasingly rural landscape after Chicago today is reminding me that the rest of this country isn’t “city”. It’s cookie-cutter America where you can count on a finite number of things being available to you when you pull off the highway. Hell, you can PREDICT with accuracy what will and will not be at your next stop just by looking down the interstate and guessing from the colors of the giant signs and billboards lining your way down consumerism alley. Ronald McDonald red does not mess around.

And you know what? I find some comfort in that predictability, which makes me a GIANT hypocrite based on what I was freaking out about last week. Although I am horrified by big business and the crushing effect it has on our small towns and developing countries beyond our borders, there is something sickeningly comforting about driving through four states and knowing that no matter where you are, you are capable of finding something familiar even if it is anApplebee’s or a drive-through Starbucks.

There is also this disturbing thought floating through my head that this is perhaps the structure I was craving last week while in Boston — predictability? The absence of surprises? The need for some sort of uniformity to set my head straight? I am really hoping that is not the case — I don’t think it is but I suspect there is a balance somewhere in between everything and I hope that equilibrium is to be found somewhere on the West Coast.

Still, I’m not gonna lie. I drove off that exit last night and I got a little nostalgic. Maybe it was the familiarity of a place I had been a long long time ago with a different person, at a different age. Maybe it was just the thrill of recognizing where I was. Or perhaps it was just the immense relief of pulling in somewhere and being totally anonymous in a familiar setting that hasn’t changed at all, even though I have. Whatever it was, it made me smile a bit while I drove around in awe of all those great big box stores and predictable fast food restaurants. And, yes, I am sort of disappointed in myself for embracing a lot of those things I typically hate, but I am also delighted to have wireless Internet and a king-sized bed with free cable and a mini-gym. I also just realized I don’t have any socks with me but GOOD NEWS!! There is a Target right around the corner.

So, that is the latest pontification from somewhere in semi-middle America. Other fleeting notes I have just in terms of this East/West roadtrip in comparison to the 2002 version? The roads are markedly worse — more construction and less smooth asphalt. Is that just in my head? I don’t recall having to stop so damn much. More food for thought: Cell phone coverage is only slightly more reliable — What the hell, Verizon? Finally, I think total gas cost is going to be about the same as it did when we drove a friggin’ U-Haul seven years ago which kind of chaps my ass a bit. I drive a Honda Civic and she sure as s**t doesn’t eat as much gas as that thing did. Bugger.

Anyway, the next stop is Chicago which I am sure I won’t have anything to complain about (sad for you guys) since I am staying in a beautiful house with my beautiful friend’s beautiful aunt and plan on going out to eat beautiful food and have beautiful drinks later tonight. I know you’re all immensely disappointed but fear not: There is nothing but big sky and corn fields after that stop, ladies and gentlemen. My next post is coming to you from somewhere in Iowa/Nebraska/Wyoming and I suspect it may not be pretty. You can be sure the wheels will come off if I manage to find the mini-Dutch town in Nebraska that Lindsay and I stumbled onto the last time I drove out that way — not kidding, about the existence of said town or my reaction to it.

Peace out, people. Time to continue west.

Africa is a bemusement park

I have been back in the States approximately 8 days now and things here…well, they are weird. On a superficial level, yeah, this place is a worm-hole. The very idea of microbrew beer on tap (or any beer on tap, period), cheese that does not taste like plastic, cars that drive on the “right” side of the road, and the sheer manic pace of people/cars/things/life is freaking me out a bit. Not only that, but I have done very little else but talk about my experiences in Africa for the past eight days — I talk with family, I talk with friends, I just spent TWO WHOLE DAYS talking, talking, talking to students, teachers, faculty and staff at BC about Africa, and refugees and my job and culture shock, REVERSE culture shock, blah blah blah blah blah.I talked to a friggin’ policeman on the street the other day in Brookline about Africa — I talked to half a bar in Portsmouth on Tuesday night, and then later chatted to half the population in a diner in Dover, NH about Africa while showing a friend pictures of my life there. Sweet baby jesus on a bicycle!!! Can we all just take a moment to SHUT UP about all of this?!?!!? 

I’m sorry, if it sounded rude, it was. It may have even been intentionally rude, I’m not gonna lie. Being back in the U.S. is stressing me out on a variety of different levels, all of them intensely personal and somewhat complicated in a way that I have not had to deal with in over four months. Life in Malawi is seemingly so much more straight-forward than things here mostly because there are just fewer options in almost every aspect of life. In anything from transportation (the roads run north/south and east/west. Going to the lake? Go north and turn right. End of story.) to food (there is no such thing as blue cheese dressing or real cream cheese, or coffee in a ‘to-go’ container! — the sooner you accept this and move on with your life, the better things will be). We all just work with what we have there and things seem to move along just fine.

In the absence of choice, something in your brain changes and slows down. The filter through which I look at things right now while wandering around Boston and trying to tie up my life here, is somewhat black and white, and I feel intensely ill-prepared to deal with the constant stimulation of being in a city, or being back in an environment where people know me in an entirely different context. Not only that, but I am struggling with the feeling of walking around in a sea of people who all look like me but who have absolutely no friggin’ clue about what is happening in the rest of the world. It makes me feel intensely bitter and frightened in a way that I don’t feel back in Malawi…

Which goes back to this whole idea of feeling really burned out about talking about my experiences. They aren’t just experiences. This wasn’t just a trip. This is my life. This is what I have chosen to do with myself and where I have made a home. So to come back and be thrown into this space where people want to hear all about everything and want to hear all about me, although endearing, is terribly overwhelming and feels somewhat disingenuous. I feel that on some level that I am sort of cheating the people I work with out of some kind of human legitimacy, or that I am betraying this work that I hold very sacred by throwing things onto a powerpoint presentation and chatting the BC faculty up — all while holding a extra-large nonfat mocha latte in a to-go cup in my hand. My brain is not up to that speed. I can’t do all of these things at once and feel flippant about my behavior and my words — it stresses me out and for lack of a better description, makes me feel kind of bad. 

So without REALLY knowing how or what I need to do to make myself feel better, I am just trying to make small decisions that have some impact in the present. Case in point:  After oscillating back and forth about actually attending my graduate school graduation ceremony, I decided yesterday at the bequest of my other Global Practice Social Work ladies, that I need to attend. In the face of a lot of other difficult things happening in my life right now, I am going to to give myself the chance to be a bit selfish and self-indulgent and walk onto that stage, grab a diploma and be proud of myself for getting through three long years of studying and the last four months of working abroad. I am patting myself on my back, brushin’ that dirt off my shoulders as Jay-Z would say (and yes, I really did just quote Jay-Z). And I’m doing it while holding a latte, talking on my cell phone and flipping my hair around in truly indulgent Americana style. 

Take that, reverse culture shock. 

P.S. I realize the above post did nothing to actually address the discombobulatedness that I’m feeling right now but hey, I did manage to gain a fancy acronym at the end of my name which must give me some sort of legitimacy, right? — Katherine Meagan Demitz, MSW. Holla’.

Circle of Friends

Last night was my last evening in Malawi for seven weeks. And although I am returning to the very same country in a little less than two months, some of the ‘goodbyes’ I said yesterday were ‘forever’ goodbyes – there are friends I left last night and this morning that I quite likely, will never see again and that is weighing heavily on me today as I sit on a plane and head west.

I took a long walk early this morning around Lilongwe, thinking about the reality of giving someone a hug, looking into their eyes and realizing that they are about to disappear from your present life…or that you are about to vanish from theirs. I have had to leave a lot of places and have left many, many friends behind, but this morning feels different. It feels sad, and lonely, and in some ways, a little bit unfair. And the question of the day is, why, of all moments in time, leaving people behind should be so difficult, particularly since I am not actually leaving Malawi forever this time around…

Between meandering through Lilongwe, packing my things, sending farewell messages and trying to hold it together long enough to get on the plane I am on right now, I sort of figured something out about this whole ‘saying goodbye’ thing. Like I said, this isn’t my first time around the block with all of this but I think that is precisely WHY watching people move in and out of my life at this stage is such a slippery, sad feeling. It occurred to me today, somewhere between the capital city roundabout and town, that as we get older, that beautiful, naïve, youthful optimism about the wide-openness of the future settles a bit, and age and experience inevitably temper that sense that anything is possible. The once novel idea that we never really have to let anything or anyone go, starts to fade as life sort of proves that fate often has other ideas. Living in Latin America at 23 years old I would have thrown my hands up to the sky and shouted with certainty that my friends and I would hold onto each other forever, that we would travel and meet up in exotic places, and that there were indeed no obstacles to those goals.

To a certain extent this is true – there are those people who you can and must hold close to you long after you depart or they take off from a particular junction in your life. I have those friends – I cherish those individuals beyond all reasonable comprehension. But there are always other people in your life who despite playing important roles in your everyday experiences and being the powerful, colorful backgrounds of your stories and memories, inevitably fade away or flit out of your life without warning or control.

I don’t mean to say that getting older kills off that wonderful joy and anticipation of what lies ahead, because I don’t think it does. (I certainly look at my future right now and although it freaks me out a little bit, it does so in that great, butterflies-in-the-stomach way that only having no earthly idea what you’re doing can). Nor do I want imply that I haven’t made absolutely amazing lifelong friends over the past four months, because I have, way beyond my wildest expectations and much to my immense joy and surprise. But this is precisely why moving on from a place, a home, or a tight-knit community often just blatantly sucks – my friendships and my experiences from this winter and spring are why I am struggling so badly with heading back to the states right now.

The circumstances of living abroad as an expat tend to perpetuate the development of fast, intense friendships. For me, moving to Malawi hasn’t just been about finding a niche in my professional life, it has been about finding a community and a home where I feel like me for the first time in a long, long time. I have fallen madly and deeply in love with my friends here, not in a romantic way, but in the way you love your family, or your childhood friends who know everything about you from the time you were 8 years old. I have fallen in love in that way that makes your heart want to explode and break at the same time when you think about what your world is going to look like without them in the not so distant future – Avik Maitra, you know who you are.

What I am trying to say, sitting on this plane, writing a letter to the world and thinking about how ironic it is that I will be saying goodbyes all over again next week in Boston, is that in committing my future to one more year in Malawi, I have committed myself to one more year of amazing friendships, of falling in love with the people in my community over and over again, and to having another 12 months of incomparable and unfathomable experiences. But this means, too, that I have also agreed to open myself up to an endless stream of goodbyes, some of which I anticipate are going to make my world seem empty for a long, long time. It’s a spiral, cyclical existence, one that would be impossible to cope with if we didn’t build strong relationships with those around us. I don’t think that any one of us who chooses this future goes in thinking she can do it all on her own.

So, with a twinge of sorrow and a bit of sad acceptance, (and just a smidge of sentimentality, let’s face it), my final thought is this: the very existence of true friendship and community forces the existence of ‘forever’ goodbyes – none of us can really say for sure what the future holds, or who will enter or leave our lives at any given time. And as much as the leaving part is painful and hurts to even think about, maybe it is also a good reminder that each of us needs to embrace who and what we have in the present and take those wonderful experiences and people for what they are worth right now.

The last few months have been a great gift in my life, one that would not have been the same without those individuals who shared it with me, even if only for a moment. A million thank you’s to my friends, past, present, and forever…